This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
See California - a new page? for my tasting notes on all these wines.
Something game-changing happened for California wine exports last month. A whole generation of British wine buyers who had previously associated California only with cheap and not very cheerful brands and unthinkably expensive and often exaggerated Chardonnay and Cabernet were exposed to something completely different. Not that the wines on show at an all-day event celebrating 'The New California' organised by London wine merchants Roberson were bargains. Most of the retail prices, between £12.95 and £89.95 a bottle, looked on the high side to me. But the wines themselves presented a completely different and refreshing face of America's wine state: bone-dry wines with nerve, tension, intrigue, geographical awareness, no more than 13.5% alcohol and, in most cases, the promise of developing into something even more interesting.
The day of tasting and presentations was named after a controversial new book by the wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, who led the talks. Jon Bonné doesn't look like a rebel. Quiet, neat and diminutive, he looks more like an academic. But he has become the chronicler of a new movement of California winemakers. He arrived in the state from his native New York in 2006 without great enthusiasm for the blockbuster wines that dominated the California wine scene then. 'I found them expensive, monotonous and not that interesting.' He wondered what had gone wrong because, having been brought up with wine by a chef father, he knew that people like Robert Mondavi, Warren Winiarksi of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars and Paul Draper of Ridge had been making refined, complex wines for decades. He describes the early-21st-century orthodoxy of big, ripe wines as 'California's decadent phase. Wines had got not just riper but had really moved to pure impact rather than flavour.'
He then started to become aware of more and more producers who had decided to reject this paradigm, were vinifying grape varieties other than the well-known ones and those grown in much cooler regions, generally with particularly marked influence from the chilly Pacific and its fogs. Sta. Rita Hills, north west of Santa Barbara, for instance, where sommelier-turned-winemaker Rajat Parr, who was at the London event, makes Sandhi wines, is fog-free for only five or six hours most summer days. The Sonoma Coast ranch where Jasmine Hirsch's family grows Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with almost burgundian reticence is just three miles from the ocean and one mile from the San Andreas Fault - a help when marketing complex geology.
According to Bonné (picture here in both cases by Erik Castro), 'about 2010 it became clear that these sort of people were starting to change the conversation about California wine. I realised that their wine was radically changing things. They were providing completely new interpretations of familiar places, and also introducing places that wine people didn't know about.' Bonné says he was moved to write The New California because he felt this new movement, showcased in California since 2010 with an annual tasting called In Pursuit of Balance, or IPOB, was as significant in its way as the movement of the 1970s that fought over-industrialised wines and introduced winemaking ambition.
Because these 'new' wines are so different, they are in danger of polarising the market - and in danger of encouraging less skilful practitioners to think that early picking plus no new oak is enough. And even I feel that there are some occasions when a full-throttle, super-ripe, almost sweet-tasting California Chardonnay or Cabernet can seem just the job. It is surely essential for the state to retain diversity - arguably more than Australia has in its dash towards sometimes anorexic wines. The reaction of the California wine establishment has been either to deride the IPOB mob as mere fringe operators or to argue that there is nothing new about them, that there have always been exceptions to the rule. And certainly Napa Valley Cabernets from the likes of Corison (represented gloriously at the London event), Spottswoode and Viader have long been models of subtlety (and all have female winemakers - coincidence?).
But as someone who has been closely observing California wines since I was honorary secretary of Britain's Zinfandel Club in the late 1970s, I am convinced that things did change for the worse in the 1990s when prolonged 'hang time' came into vogue. The effects were particularly evident in the massive wave of red wines made from grapes left so long on the vine that they started to shrivel. Acidity and tannins came to be regarded as negative attributes; alcohol and richness were striven for. Yet when researching trends for the recent seventh edition of the World Atlas of Wine, I found every single region, however warm, reported a deliberate move away from this style - with the exception of mainstream California.
In California the estate model whereby wine producers grow all their own grapes is the exception. The great majority of grapes come from land owned by professional vine farmers tended by teams of highly skilled Mexicans. The result of the new fashion for ripeness was that growers were required to prioritise sugar levels in grapes above all else. Thanks to added acid and new techniques such as reverse osmosis and the so-called spinning cone, everything else could be 'fixed' in the cellar. So ingrained has the habit of extended hang time become that it can be difficult for the new-wave producers to persuade growers to pick as early as they would like and special contracts have sometimes had to be drawn up, theoretically to protect growers from being sued.
Steve Matthiasson, who manages to make blends of unusual, characterful grapes by growing them himself at the southern, more fog-cooled end of the Napa Valley, explained how he had been inspired by his experiences in Friuli, north-east Italy, where winemakers actively sought freshness in their wines. Back home he found himself on a panel called 'high impact winemaking past 25 Brix', a relatively extreme ripeness level. When he asked rhetorically how on earth you could offer freshness from such ripe grapes, one winemaker asked him what freshness was.
The twin elephants in the room during all these discussions were the leading American arbiters of wine taste, the Wine Spectator and Robert M Parker Jr of The Wine Advocate, both of which have consistently rewarded super-ripe wines. But Bonné, who has drawn heavy criticism from both (Parker having coined the scornful term 'anti flavor wine elite' as long ago as 2010), was keen that the blame be shared. 'As much as it is tempting to point fingers at one or two critics, it is actually the fault of the wine industry who went along with it and claimed they were just making what people wanted to drink.'
NEW-WAVE CALIFORNIA WINES
The wines shown in London were from Arnot-Roberts, Broc, Copain, Corison, Domaine de la Côte, Hirsch, Jolie-Laide, Kutch, Lioco, Matthiasson, Moobuzz, Mount Eden, Piedrasassi, Sandhi, Smith-Madrone, Tatomer and Viano and some were also being shown in other European cities. The following are particularly strongly recommended.
Viano Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 Contra Costa County £14.95
Broc Cellars, Cuvée 13.1 Syrah 2012 Santa Lucia Highlands £21.95
Lioco Chardonnay 2012 Sonoma County £23.95
Jolie-Laide Trousseau Gris 2012 Russian River Valley £27.95
Arnot-Roberts, Luchsinger Trousseau 2012 North Coast £29.95
Sandhi Wines Chardonnay 2012 Santa Barbara County £32.95
Matthiasson Wines, Napa White 2012 Napa Valley £36.95
Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 Napa Valley £39.95
Hirsch Vineyards Chardonnay 2012 Sonoma Coast £49.95
Domaine de la Côte, Bloom's Field Pinot Noir 2011 Sta. Rita Hills £49.95
Mount Eden Vineyards Estate Chardonnay 2009 Santa Cruz Mountains £54.95
Corison Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Napa Valley £59.95
All from Roberson Wine in the UK; check out wine-searcher.com for stockists elsewhere. See full tasting notes in California - a new page?